So long, Brandon Backe.

Brandon Backe refused the Astros’ Minor League assignment, and now, the club in the process of giving him his unconditional release.

The decision to designate Backe for assignment a few days ago signaled the likely end of his tenure with the Astros, but today’s news obviously makes it official, and permanent.

I hope Backe finds another team, and I hope he does well. Even though he didn’t pan out in the last year or so, this Galveston kid was always a fan favorite, and he’ll forever be remembered for his tenacity when the pressure was on.

One image sticks in my mind more than any other. It was the last game of the season in 2004, and I was standing in the hallway in the clubhsouse that connects the locker room, the lunch room and the training room. As Brad Ausmus walked by, Phil Garner stopped him and said, “Clemens is sick. He can’t go. Backe’s pitching.” Ausmus’ face fell, just for a fleeting moment; then he nodded and walked away.

Pitching coach Jim Hickey then sat down next to Backe and quietly gave him the news. This was an hour before gametime, and the Astros’ postseason hopes were riding on this one game. Backe looked at Hickey and didn’t say a word. He just took a deep breath, nodded, and got ready to pitch.

Backe pitched his heart out, allowing three runs over five innings, and the Astros won the Wild Card. That performance was eclipsed only by his Game 5 start in the NLCS, when he went nose-to-nose with Woody Williams, allowing one hit over eight innings, in a game the Astros won on Jeff Kent’s ninth-inning home run.

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Here are a couple of details regarding how unconditional releases work:

* The process to obtain unconditional waivers for the purpose of giving a player his release takes three days.

* If Backe clears waivers, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and will collect his full 2009 salary, whether he signs with another club or not. If Backe does sign with another club, that team is required to pay him the Major League minimum salary (prorated).

Read Brian McTaggart’s story here.

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The decision to stick with six pitchers until the All-Star break makes sense for the Astros, especially if you think about it in terms of contract status.

The six pitchers are Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz, Felipe Paulino and Brian Moehler. All are pitching well. Obviously, Oswalt and Rodriguez are your mainstays who aren’t in danger of losing their status as top of the rotation guys. The next tier are Hampton and Moehler, who have not worked out of the bullpen this year. They’re also veterans signed to guaranteed contracts, which eliminates the possibility of moving them without losing them. Russ Ortiz, who has worked out of ‘pen and rotation, is in the same boat.

So who’s movable? Felipe Paulino. But why would you send him down? He’s under 30, he’s loaded with potential and he was very, very good his last outing.

So really, the Astros don’t have many options. I suppose they could release Hampton if he’s not good in his next outing or two, but then what if someone else starts struggling? You’re taking away depth in a rotation that doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room.

Also, the Astros are considering using a starting pitcher to finish the suspended game, which would then put Roy and Wandy back on their regular schedule. That alone justifies utilizing a six-man rotation.

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From the Ask Alyson files:

I’m a bit confused how the continued game with the Nationals on July 9 will work. Will there be some kind of limit to the number of innings, or will they just play until there is a conclusion? If so, will the second game (the one originally scheduled for that date with the Astros as the home team) just start whenever the continued game ends, be it 7 p.m. or midnight (heaven forbid)? Will they be selling tickets to the continued game, and will they be broadcasting it as usual on FS-Houston? — Brian S.

Excellent questions. To review, the Astros and Nationals May 5 game was suspended in the 11th inning, and it will be played to its conclusion on July 9 at Minute Maid Park. The score was tied, 10-10, with the Nats batting in the bottom of the frame. Josh Willingham was at the plate with a runner on first and one out. The Nationals will be the home team.

There will be no limit to the number of innings played — they’ll play until someone wins. The second game will start no earlier than 7:05 p.m. CT but if the suspended game goes long, there will be a 30-minute break between games. If it ends quickly, the second game will start at its regular time.

A ticket to the regularly-scheduled game gets you into the suspended game. Both games will be broadcast on FS Houston and 740-AM KTRH.

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From around the cage at batting practice Monday afternoon:

Hitting coach Sean Berry talks, well, hitting, with Hunter Pence.  

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Mike Hampton and Roy Oswalt.

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Kaz Matsui stretches before he hits.

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Oswalt again.

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Hunter Pence laughs as he tells Ed Wade about his hair-cutting experience from that morning. Apparently, Pence wanted to trim the RallyHawk, but the first place he went to, the door was locked and the worker inside shook her head and said, “we’re closed.”

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Wesley Wright and Brian Moehler have a pre-batting practice chat.

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Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter 

5 Comments

Those memories of Bradon Backe that you mentioned are right up there with my best memories of him. But I also remember the game that Biggio caught, and Brandon pitched on Biggio’s last days. Brandon stood right on the steps of the dugout and watched EVERY MINUTE of Biggio’s last moments in MMP. All the other players had long since gone down the tunnel. But not Brandon. He was going to savor and drink in every last moment of Biggio in an Astros uniform. It was touching to see, and I have pictures of him in the dugout watching Biggio. I had the pleasure of seeing Brandon interact with fans many times. He loved the fans and he truly loved the Astros. He had some REALLY GREAT moments pitching for us with some real flashes of brillance. That last game of the WS comes to mind too. It’s tough to recover fully from Tommy John surgery, and I think Brandon needs more time to fully recover and get back in shape. I wish him all the best, and hope to watch him pitch in MLB again.

All the best to you Brandon and thanks for the wonderful memories you gave us. Take care and remember, you’ll always have fans in Houston rooting for you.

I was fortunate to score some tix to the last game of the WS in Houston, and man you couldn’t have asked anymore of Backe that day. He was fantastic. All for naught of course, but not his fault….I knew we were probably doomed with the likes of Ensberg and Lane on that team…’dead wood’ as one of my friends used to say. Alas, good luck to Brandon, he’s a tough competitor and I’m sure he’ll land a job somewhere.

I do have a question Alyson. The Stros have been playing more decent ball lately, and of course that’s mostly all due to the starting pitching that we’ve been getting…but I look up at the standings right now, and even though we’re two games below .500…we’re only 4 games off of 1st place? Wha??? Our division isn’t exactly setting the world on fire this year. I’m thinking if we were able to make at least one move in the pitching area, we might be good to go for a serious run at the division title. I’m guessing the Wild Card winner will not come out of the Central this year. So it’s looking like it may not take much to clinch the Central.

What do you think the chances are that we see the return of ‘Trader Ed’ before the trade deadline?

That’s a mold-breaker. Great thnnikig!

If I recall correctly we only had three home runs hit in the 2005 World Series, one by Mike Lamb and one each from the so-called “dead wood” Jason Lane and Mo Endsberg. Seems it was the rest of the team whose wood was “deader.”

I’ll miss Backe – lots of good memories – and the guy could bat too! Gotta love a pitcher who helps himself.

Let’s hope the Nats game doesn’t end quickly. I spent 11 innings sitting in the rain (and 9 the previous night) to watch them get to the tie – I really want the Astros to come to bat in the 12th!

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